Community Voices: When I Got Old

It was at dinner the other night, and I was waxing eloquent about something. I don’t remember the subject or the context, but it involved the phrase “projectile vomiting.” Of course, my 16-year old daughter sighed loudly, my 10-, 12-, and 14-year old sons laughed, and my four-year old son immediately looked at Mom with a look of mingled horror and glee to see how she would react.

My wife rolled her eyes, told my sons to stop repeating it, and went on with serving the salad. The four-year old seemed disappointed that Mom hadn’t given me a lecture, because that’s always what happened to him when he said something bad, and even Ben knows that projectile vomiting is not acceptable during dinner.

I apologized quietly, admitted that I was an infant, and changed the subject. My sons randomly giggled through the rest of dinner, and the 14-year old repeatedly asked me to relate the story of how I once personally recalled a can of botulistic chili I’d eaten the night before Hormel got around to a public recall back when I was 14. I deferred.

Thirty minutes later most of us were watching The Iron Giant (the two-year old’s choice) while my 14-year old sat in the corner reading Ender’s Game. I’d been contemplating the fact that little boys never grow up (I’m just a ten-year old with 36 years of experience–I’m very good at it now) and taking stock of the many small acts of childish resistance I’d perpetrated that day when I looked up at the TV to watch the young beatnik making a scene in the diner.

As my kids laughed I couldn’t help but wonder at his active disdain for social convention and the sensibilities of others. Yes, the specific event with the squirrel was beyond his control, but he had gone to a lot of (sustained) effort beforehand to build separation and create the very distrust that he then seems frustrated by. I appreciate creating unique identity, but who says failing to shave and wearing odd clothes makes you morally superior? I love flexible thinking and the ability to retain a sense of wonder, but who said you have to wear a uniform to prove it? Why can’t one be a free thinker who wears ordinary clothes and practices an ordinary profession?

It’s like Bridge to Terabithia where we have to put the little girl in rainbow suspenders to prove she’s different (and better). Or even Coraline with the same fundamental schtick and the menagerie of weirdly accoutred friends and neighbors?

I know–it’s visual/creative shorthand to make it evident that *this* one is not like *that* one, an iconic representation so we can get down to the real business of character building and waking people up to new possibilities.

Except that they rarely actually build a character, and those new possibilities seem awfully familiar. They take a couple of superficial discontents, dress them up in high conceptual language, and pretend that this generation’s attempts to create individual identity are somehow more meaningful and more fundamentally relevant and more difficult and transformative than the exact same effort that every single generation goes through since Lucifer acted out against his dad.

No one argues with anyone’s right to feel discontent at the way things are and to want to make them better, but dad isn’t always wrong. Sometimes the established way of doing things is based on deep thought and lengthy considerations of ideas and problems that simply haven’t occurred to younger people. A perky attitude, an unbuttoned/untucked shirt, and a fedora worn to the side are a superficial difference, not a transformative movement. That affectation by my 12-year old son’s friend is *exactly* the same uniform the class clown in *my* seventh grade class wore (the one who mimicked Howard Coselle every time he spoke), and who featured prominently in West Side Story.

That’s three full generations within my own direct experience. Where’s your smug moral superiority now, you little twerp? You couldn’t even come up with something original to use as proof of your special betterness; you just recycled something that was already old and recycled when I was your age, and you want me to see you as different and innovative? I *work* at innovation and push limits that you’ve never even considered.

Why when I was your age…I mean, uh…my dad was really a fossil, not cool and relevant like me…which is to say…I listen to music that would curl your hair…I’m still, I mean I’m not…

It’s true, isn’t it? Somewhere, somehow I got old. I’m not sure when it happened, or how, or why. I didn’t ask for it and have taken a certain pride in avoiding it. I don’t recall any particular transformative moment where I lost my innocence and the Spirit of Curmudgeon came upon me. But it most certainly has.

I don’t assume the counterculture hero is always right. I don’t assume the father is just a hopeless, broken fool who lost the ability to dream or to solve his own problems. I’m not convinced that we could fix all the world’s ills if only we’d wear our hats just a little further out of true and let our pants droop or our cuffs rise until they’ve created a new and better social fabric upon which to build the next generation.

Yes, we need to embrace the new age of social media and green economy. You understand that it’s been forty years of fossils like me and my parents working constantly to develop the underlying technology to make all of those things (my residential wind turbine goes in sometime in October) that now gives you the ability to tut and sigh and bemoan the stolid myopia of older generations that just don’t *get* it.

You understand that recycling has been around since the first society built over the top its predecessor; that wasn’t created by 20-somethings. We’re all building on what went before–improving and refining, and sometimes even truly innovating. But the vast majority of advances are stepwise and evolutionary, and require many minds over many years to really move the bar, often so slowly that no one really sees the movement until we’re well down the road.

Sorry…I’m doing it again, aren’t I?

I love the stories of young people finding their own place, their own way, and their own peace. But I’m not sure their rebellion is always truly meaningful, and I find myself being annoyed a lot more at the superficiality of their approach to the same fundamental problems all of us have had to (and continue to) face. I honor their struggle, but I’m not sure it’s actually harder or more difficult, or that the rest of us are either foolish or have stopped trying.

It turns out I have indeed gotten old, and I’m content with that. In literature I find that stories about a wider variety of people and places and types and forms are far more interesting and engaging than just another angry young man raging against cosmic unfairness–at least partially because I’ve been raging for many, many years now and I know that particular story pretty well. Now I’d like to explore more stories where characters find peace, not just victory.

Not instead of the other story, but in addition to. It’s an important subtlety that seems lost on young people so anxious to prove that we older types are no longer useful and need to move aside. You’ll understand someday when you’ve lived a little more of life and become (a little more) wise like me. Until then, stay off my lawn.

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7 Responses to Community Voices: When I Got Old

  1. Ed Snow says:

    Love, absolutely love, The Iron Giant. And this post.

  2. Melinda W. says:

    Yeah, I don’t understand why those young whippersnappers want to reinvent the wheel either.

    It would be an interesting "coming of age" story in which the hero comes of age by realizing he’s repeating a theme that everyone before him has gone through. I do believe that people have to come to that realization on their own. No one wants to develop maturity by listening to someone lecture about how things were back in their day. Now that I’ve come to that realization, I wish I could listen to my grandparents tell stories about how things were back in their day.

    That was a thought-provoking post. Finding out my real place in history was actually comforting, as the weight of the world rolled off my shoulders. It wasn’t up to me and my generation to completely change everything to save the future. Past generations worked on changes, and future generations will do the same thing. I can participate in the process.

  3. I really enjoyed this, Scott. One of the things I liked about the man I eventually married was that he couldn’t be bothered trying to prove his uniqueness to anyone. He had better things to do and think about.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    Small addendum–

    I completely understand that young people want to establish their own value and identity–just like old people and middlin’ people–and while I may be amused at some of the superficiality associated with those efforts at times, I not only understand the impulse, but I heartily encourage the activity.

    It’s only through the challenge that we become more and better than we are.

    Still, it seems like a disproportionate amount of our literature and other entertainments focus on coming of age as an activity only of the young, and tend to portray the non-young as silly, staid, or otherwise irrelevant in the process. I don’t except my own obsolescence, and I’m not prepared to cede that all young people are inherently more wise than the rest of us simply because they haven’t been jaded yet.

    I prefer to think of it as refined, not tarnished. Tempered, not jaded.

    And I’d like to see more stories of the many comings of age that we non-young humans experience, and the realization that defeating the other is not always the better outcome.

    FWIW.

  5. Melinda W. says:

    [i]And I’d like to see more stories of the many comings of age that we non-young humans experience, and the realization that defeating the other is not always the better outcome.[/i]

    In a discussion on another LDS board, a woman commented that she’d much rather work with the Young Women than in Relief Society because the YW are making such important choices at this time of their lives, while the RS sisters are set in their ways and done with developing. I’m afraid there are several people with that mindset. I’m not one of them. I believe adults are capable of change, and making choices, and all sorts of life-altering behavior that typically gets ascribed to the youth.

    The manuscript I’ve almost finished tells some adult coming-of-age stories.

    I agree with you that becoming refined and polished is not just an experience for the young.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Speaking of signifying through clothing, I had to chuckle today over a cast photograph. A friend’s son recently moved to Utah and was cast as the lead in some local production of Footloose. the photo his mother sent was of her son with the lead girl–the character who defies her daddy, has sex with her boyfriend, and wants to dance all night long in spite of her preacher father’s forbidding it (daddy’s always wrong, right?). There she is, her legs wrapped around my friend’s son, wearing her sexy red cowboy boots, her shorts, and a tiny red blouse, knotted at her waist–a true stage slut, right? Not hardly. She’s wearing a white tee shirt beneath the tied shirt. Ha. She may be the "loose" in Footloose, but that girl knows church standards.

  7. Very good. (Sorry for coming to the party so late.) I particularly liked the following: "In literature I find that stories about a wider variety of people and places and types and forms are far more interesting and engaging than just another angry young man raging against cosmic unfairness–at least partially because I’ve been raging for many, many years now and I know that particular story pretty well. Now I’d like to explore more stories where characters find peace, not just victory."

    All too often, life and literature and sex and love and change and All Those Things are depicted in our culture as being "no country for old men [and women]," to shamelessly steal a phrase from Yeats. To which I suppose we can oppose Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, who enjoined us to

    Grow old along with me!
    The best is yet to be,
    The last of life, for which the first was made:
    Our times are in His hand
    Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
    Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’

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